On Thursday last week, about 115,000 US civil servants, or 5 percent of the US federal government work force, were forced to take a day of unpaid leave because of the budget crunch.
National Federation of Federal Employees president Bill Dougan has expressed concern that if the US congressional standoff over the budget cuts is not resolved, more employees may be forced to take unpaid leave.
In late 2008, then-Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger laid off about 20,000 state employees and temporarily cut the salaries of 200,000 full-time state employees to the federal minimum wage of US$6.55 per hour.
Compared with US civil servants, Taiwanese civil employees are very lucky. Taiwan’s economy has been in dire straits since the financial crisis started and has deteriorated over time. Private-sector employees have been forced to take unpaid leave and some have even lost their jobs.
However, civil servants are under no such threat. The phrase “unpaid leave” is not part of their vocabulary and salary cuts are taboo.
Two years ago, despite a rising national debt, civil servants were given a salary increase of 3 percent, while employees at state-owned CPC Corp, Taiwan, and Taiwan Power Co — both of which have long been operating at a loss — continued to receive annual performance bonuses of between 4.3 and 4.6 months of their salary. They are indeed very lucky.
Last year, the government revised down its annual GDP forecast nine times. Economic growth in the first quarter of this year also fell below the government forecast of 3.26 percent, at 1.54 percent.
Despite this ridiculous performance, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has said that the public should not blame or criticize civil servants because “if we did, who would ever want to become a civil servant?”
The question is, why would anyone not want to be a civil servant? Civil service is an iron rice bowl guaranteeing lifetime employment and benefits.
Ma has also asked: “How will telling an official who made an inaccurate forecast to step down solve the problem?”
One or two mistakes may be chalked down to inaccurate forecasting, but when it happens nine or 10 times in a row, it shows an unwillingness to face up to reality by reporting only the good news while ignoring the bad. With that approach, it will become impossible to solve issues that originally stood a chance of being resolved.
Is it really impossible to fire civil servants, cut their salaries or tell them to take unpaid leave? The US, the world’s biggest economy, has given us the answer to that question.
As Mencius (孟子) said: “Life springs from sorrow and calamity, and death from ease and pleasure.” Does it not apply to civil servants too?
Chang Kuo-tsai is a retired associate professor at National Hsinchu University of Education and a former deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors.
Translated by Perry Svensson